Burnout is costly: evidence shows it takes a toll on mental health, leads to medical errors, and contributes to provider suicide. In interviews my colleagues and I conducted with oncology professionals, the issues that one might imagine cause burnout (eg, the emotional burden of caring for cancer patients) were often considered a source of meaning and purpose—what they signed up to do. On the other hand, burnout was often attributed to inter-professional issues, a sense of isolation while providing care, and not having someone else who truly understands what they’re going through. This spoke to the need for a team-based approach to addressing burnout.
Our solution was an initiative to enhance teamwork using two organizational science concepts: 1) open, supportive communication and 2) psychological safety—a sense that one can express yourself authentically within a group without fear of negative consequences. As leaders drive many aspects of teamwork, oncology unit leaders were invited to participate in a developmental program that taught the skills of self-awareness, candid expression of thoughts and emotions, active listening, and approaches to cultivating a supportive climate within their teams.
As a healthcare organizational science team, we wanted to determine whether oncology leaders would bring these practices to their teams and whether it would affect teamwork and burnout. We analyzed assessments of the team-based initiative, teamwork, and burnout across 2 years of oncology unit employee survey data (409 employees across 30 units). Our results, published in JCO Oncology Practice, suggest that oncology burnout can be reduced by enhancing teamwork. Specifically, when units reported that their leaders implemented the team-based initiative, employees were more likely to feel positively about their teams and report lower burnout scores 1 year later.
Our study provides support for team-based initiatives designed to reduce burnout in oncology. It reinforces the idea that, to some extent, burnout is a disease of occupational loneliness; oncology professionals who come together as part of a supportive, interdisciplinary team are most likely to be resilient. It is a promising start, but important questions remain. For instance, we don’t yet know which aspects of teamwork are most important across different stages of burnout. Future research should examine whether there are strategies more suited for teams that are already experiencing burnout as opposed to strategies to prevent newer teams from developing it in the first place.
To Address Burnout in Oncology, We Must Look to Teams: Reflections on an Organizational Science Approach